Poetic New York

Beautiful images from Bernard O’Donoghue

Tonight I was at a wonderful poetry reading at Glucksman House in Manhattan, by Bernard O’Donoghue, an Irish scholar-poet who teaches in Wadham College, Oxford. A sweet, friendly man, originally from the borders of Cork and Kerry, he introduced each poem with a preamble, which gave a revealing context and background. He’s come up with such wonderful images as this: “like breath on eggs or love pressed too far…”

Every place you live in brings something new to your life, but who would have thought that it would take New York to introduce me to poetry, and Irish poetry at that?

I’ve always “loved” poetry, in a general sense. In school I was a fan of Soundings, a lovely little anthology with poems by the likes of Milton and Shakespeare, and more contemporary figures. I especially loved the Irish section — not only because it introduced me to Yeats, but also because of Austin Clarke’s “The Lost Heifer,” Patrick Kavanagh’s “Canal Bank Walk,” and  Thomas Kinsella’s “Mirror in February.” All through my adult life I remembered these poetic pearls, and would have described myself as a lover of poetry, if you’d asked.

But I was kind of stuck. I rarely read anything new. And although I love Seamus Heaney too, it’s actually his prose I like best, the essays in his “Redress of Poetry” in particular; you can read them as a defense of literature and the arts.

It’s only in New York that I’ve been exposed to poetry, not in books but in performance. A couple of weekends ago, I went to a poetry festival at the Irish Arts Center in New York. The poets who spoke there — Enda Wyley, Joseph Woods, Peter Sirr, Paula Meehan, Harry Clifton and Eilean Ni Chuilleanain — were all Irish, and (obviously) all living people. It was wonderful to hear them read in the small theater with other listeners, and to hear them speak the rhythms of their poems. Paula Meehan’s heavy lilting tones were especially affecting, but all the readings gave the listener an emotional experience of some kind.

It’s ironic for me to find out that this is how I like poetry. I spent years (a decade) studying and analysing the poems of ancient Greece — Homer, Sappho, and stranger names like Archilochus. I encountered them in old editions, in dusty libraries at Oxford where even the air was yellow, but all the Greek poets originally performed their compositions in public places. They accompanied themselves on musical instruments, performed at parties, and sang bawdy lyrics, while audiences laughed along. Poetry was more than public, it was communal, and festive.

Anyhow, back to O’Donoghue. I bought his book. He was signing copies, and chatting away with a kind friendliness, and what seemed like endless patience, so now I have a signed copy of his selected poems. I’ll leave you with my favorite poem so far. In his preface to it, O’Donoghue explained he’d met a wonderful nun in her 70s. She had joined the convent when she was 14, and she told O’Donoghue that that same day, she also saw a car for the first time. The poem’s called “A Nun Takes the Veil” and I’m only going to quote the beautiful first stanza (it’s eight stanzas long, but to quote dislocated sections would spoil it):

“That morning early I ran through briars

To catch the calves that were bound for market.

I stopped the once, to watch the sun

Rising over Doolin across the water.”


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